Zoo tip for back to school

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With the school year about to begin, kids aren't the only ones affected by the transition back to school. The sudden change from a busy summer vacation to an empty home can have a significant effect on our pets. So now is a good time to plan ways to keep animals engaged in calm, constructive behaviors during the long hours they will be left home alone.

For example, in zoos, keepers use two related concepts, enrichment and variety, to help stimulate animals both mentally and physically. Designing environments filled with natural substrates, water features, plant types, and sometimes, even native wildlife, goes a long way to encouraging animals to engage in normal species-specific behaviors. In addition, keepers use innovative and often homemade "toys" coupled with a diverse selection of food items to make each day different, interesting.

Pet owners can use these same ideas to help their animals adjust to possible boredom that the new school year may bring. For instance, rotate pet toys from day to day. By giving pets a few different choices each day, you'll add some variety to the long hours home alone. Plus, they won't get bored with the same old toy everyday.

You'll also want to help pets through the two of the toughest parts of any day: the moments when you leave and when you first get home. These two events can have significant effects on our pet's behavior. Whether the effect is good or bad depends on us! So try this. A few minutes before you and the kids leave for work and school, quietly give your dog a sturdy toy stuffed with a healthy treat such as boiled chicken or beef liver mixed with their normal dry food.

If your pet is like mine, he or she will go off to a favorite spot and work on getting the tasty treat out of the toy-they won't be too interested in you driving away, leaving them home alone. Not only are you teaching your pet an appropriate behavior response to the family leaving, the stuffed toy will likely keep them occupied for 10, 20 minutes or more. After that, many pets will settle into a nice long nap-another desirable behavior while we are away. I also like to leave a radio or tv (tuned to 3TV, no doubt!) on low volume to provide some white noise all day.

Finally, when you and the kids arrive back home, don't make a big deal out of it. Perhaps act as if you were merely in another part of the house or yard. If your pet was locked inside all day, calmly give it access to the yard to go potty. Then in about 5 or 10 minutes, you can carry on as normal with your pet (i.e., feed, go for walk, play etc.) This delay will go a long way to helping your pet learn that whether you are coming or going this school year, it is no big deal and no reason to get upset.

We'd like to extend special thanks to the KONG Company, for recently donating a generous supply of durable toys for our wild animals.

Grey Stafford, Ph.D. is the Director of Conservation and Communications at the Wildlife World Zoo & Aquarium and author of the new pet-training book, " ". He appears frequently on 3TV with some of the zoo's fascinating animals.

Wildlife World Zoo & Aquarium, which is located at 16501 W. Northern Ave., Litchfield Park, is open 365 days a year, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Daytime admission is $26.50 (plus tax) for adults and $14.25 (plus tax) for children 3 to 12; children 2 and younger get in free. Special evening admission to the Aquarium only is $16.99 (plus tax) for adults and $8.99 (plus tax) for children 3 to 12. For more information, call 623-935-WILD (9453) or visit .